‘If I Have Been Unkind . . .’

As I was learning how to make my way across the ocean of rock, blues R&B and all the rest during the early 1970s, I imagine that somewhere, I ran across the music of Leonard Cohen. Someone at a party, a dorm bull session, a quiet evening or somewhere else had to have put onto the stereo one of Cohen’s early albums – Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room or Songs Of Love and Hate.

I would have been unimpressed. The generally spare melodies and arrangements and the plainness of Cohen’s voice would have left me wanting more and would have over-ridden any regard I might have had for the quality of Cohen’s songs. Some of those songs I would have known via covers by other artists, like Judy Collins’ versions of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Suzanne” and “Sisters Of Mercy,” and I liked those, but Cohen’s own versions left me cold.

(In writing that, I find some irony, for over the decades, I’ve been dismayed to hear friends say essentially the same thing about Bob Dylan: I like his songs, but I cannot stand the way he sings.)

So even though there’s a fair amount of Cohen’s work on both the vinyl and digital shelves here, very little of it is played. The only album of Cohen’s that I truly like is his 1992 work, The Future, and with the exception of the great track “Closing Time,” my regard for the album is tied more to its time and my place then.

This comes up now, of course, because as we put together an alternate version of Joe Cocker’s second album, Joe Cocker!, we run right into Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.” It’s the second track on Cocker’s album, and his relatively spare take on the tune is likely the first one I ever heard. Judy Collins was evidently the first to release the song, on her 1968 album Who Knows Where The Time Goes, and I might have heard that before the spring of 1972, but I don’t think so. Some of the versions released through 1972, according to Second Hand Tunes, came from folks I would eventually listen to – Jackie DeShannon, Dave Van Ronk, Genya Ravan and Tim Hardin among them – but they were not on my turntable then.

So would any of those early versions work for our purposes today? I like the idea behind Collins’ country-tinged take, but I think the vocal gets lost. Ravan’s take from 1972 is restrained with a slowly building backing, and I like it, too. Plenty of covers have come since then, of course, and I’ve heard and liked some. But among all the versions of the tune that I’ve heard – and that list also includes covers by k. d. lang, the Neville Brothers, Fairport Convention, Kate Wolf, Johnny Cash and more – I keep coming back to Jennifer Warnes’ foreboding version on her 1987 album of Cohen’s songs, Famous Blue Raincoat.

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2 Responses to “‘If I Have Been Unkind . . .’”

  1. David Lenander says:

    If anyone should know how to sing Leonard Cohen, it’s Jennifer Warnes! I have this album only as an LP, and haven’t heard it for many years now–thanks for sharing this and bringing it to mind. I’ve kind of agreed with a friend for years that Judy Collins’s version doesn’t really capture Leonard’s song as well as his version. I think in some ways Fairport Convention’s is even worse, though I so, so love the vocals from Iain Matthews and Sandy Denny that I’m happy to listen to it–again and again. But this is one where I actually think Leonard does a great reading of his own song–unlike, for instance, “Story of Isaac,” where Judy nails it, and Leonard seems to suck out and dribble away the gravity and power of the song with his off-hand treatment. But “Bird on the Wire” should be off-hand………..

  2. David Lenander says:

    Oh, and as for this, I love Warnes’s performance, but I think that this is overproduced and arranged. It’s interesting, but too busy for my taste.

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